In the autumn of 1877, the Sedalia Democrat reported on a “shameless piece of business” involving “the wolves of the law” and their pursuit of a young woman who had moved to Sedalia. The woman’s name was Ella Skinlon. She had moved to Sedalia from Champaign, Illinois, earlier in the year. She was pretty, according to the Democrat, but “friendless,” meaning that she knew no one here.

Skinlon found a job, worked, and led an “orderly, quiet life.” Her situation — a young woman alone in a strange town with few resources — might have tempted her to do wrong. However, she resisted temptation so that “not even a suspicion of wrong doing attached to her.”

Skinlon met a young railroad worker named Green. He was attracted to her “grace and beauty,” and the couple married. They lived happily until one Saturday night when Sedalia police came to arrest her.

The Democrat explained what had prompted the arrest, a series of incidents which would “excite the tender mercy and compassion” of anyone who has feelings.

While Skinlon was living in Champaign, she was friends with some dissolute men named Dunham and Cleveland. The men were suspected of stealing a valuable gold watch. When the watch was found among Ms. Skinlon’s belongings, Champaign authorities assumed she had stolen it. She was placed on trial and testified that the watch was a gift from one of the men and that she did not know it was stolen. The authorities believed her and discharged her.

One of the Champaign detectives, Officer Ritteshouse, however, refused to give up the case; he continued to insist she was guilty and would reveal to him which of the men had stolen the watch. He placed her on the witness stand, where she was questioned. She could not answer the questions about the theft, as she did not know.

When she left the witness stand, Rittenhouse growled, “I’ll make you pay for this.” Ms. Skinlon laughed at him, an act that angered him and prompted him to threaten to “put her in the penitentiary.”

Skinlon was frightened enough by the threat to leave Champaign and come to Sedalia. Rittenhouse was able to secure an indictment by a grand jury and a requisition that she be held. He followed her to Sedalia and asked local police officers to arrest her.

The Democrat, using all the purple prose of the era, called on the citizens of Sedalia to rescue Skinlon from the “cowardly revenge of a malicious detective.” Noting her youth, her being an orphan, her exemplary life in Sedalia, and her finally having a happy home with her husband, the Democrat castigated Rittenhouse’s efforts to arrest her as a “mockery of justice.”

The story of Skinlon, now Mrs. Green, had a happy ending. Sedalia attorneys George Vest and W.W. Snoddy took her case and requested a writ of habeas corpus, meaning the police had to provide a valid reason for her to be held. Judge Wood heard arguments from Snoddy, then from Prosecutors G.P.B. Jackson and L.L. Bridges. A final argument by Vest was described as “one of the most eloquent and splendid arguments ever offered at the bar in this state.”

Judge Wood ruled in Mrs. Green’s favor, noting the freedom of a citizen was at stake. Mrs. Green and her husband “went on their way rejoicing.”

 

Contributing Columnist

Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society. 

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